Need to Know

“You don’t need to know” is a pernicious and provocative statement. It expresses arrogant authority: “I have the good judgement required to make my decision based on the facts. You don’t have that kind of judgement: you should just trust me.” Argue and this turns into a fight about why you are disrespecting the Authority by refusing to trust their good judgment, though the first act of disrespect was denying you the facts.

The Freedom of Information Act opens up all levels of public infomation to the public. The standard of the Freedom of Information Commissioners is that all information should be made available, with clearly specified exemptions to do with personal privacy and national security: there is a legal exemption if someone has asked for information that would be too expensive or too burdensome for a public body to provide, but they have to prove this to the Commissioner – they cannot simply tell you “too expensive, we won’t tell you”.

You don’t have to say why you want to know. You don’t have to prove “Need to know”. You don’t have to demonstrate that you have the good judgement to use the information wisely.

You are a member of the public. You want to know how a local authority or a public body arrived at a decision, or what they spent money on, or what was minuted at a meeting, or what the borrowing records are at your local libraries. The Freedom of Information Act says that wanting to know means you have a right to know.

Because of the FOI Act, a journalist (acting like a journalist, for once, even though they were working for the Mail on Sunday) was able to find out that the company “shaping and directing” the NHS Reform bill is McKinsey & Co, and it’s their clients who will largely benefit from it.

In essence, what we are left with are the ambitious plans for the expansion of privately run provision, masterminded it seems by the management consultancy McKinsey, many of whose corporate clients will now bid for work inside the NHS. McKinsey is said to have earned nearly £14m from the government since the election, but this is a drop in the ocean compared with the business that private health organisations working with McKinsey now expect to gain. The extent of this one firm’s involvement in shaping and directing the changes, discovered by the Mail on Sunday using Freedom of Information requests, suggests that if the “reforms” are successful, we are going to see a torrent of publicity about fat cat firms benefiting from the NHS between now and the election. Guardian, 19th February 2012

The FOI Commissioner has ordered that the Risk Register should be published. Andrew Lansley has used his ministerial veto. The decision will now go to a FOI tribunal, at which the government will have to show why they think it would be damaging to the public interest to reveal how expensive the NHS Reform Bill is going to be.

The Information Commissioner for England writes:

On the Freedom of Information Act, a chorus of distinguished Whitehall insiders would have us believe, against all the evidence, that the act threatens good government because nobody dares write anything down any more. But it’s nonsense to say that the act threatens to make public what really ought to remain secret for 30 years (shortly to be 20 years).

True, the information commissioner is not infallible. That’s why we have a route of appeal to a tribunal. Nor is the government impotent. That’s why we have the ministerial veto. The information commissioner’s decision to order publication of the Department of Health’s risk register, the subject of some controversy around the health and social care bill, will be subject to review by the tribunal, where the public interest arguments can be debated.

Because of the FOI Act, a handful of unfunded volunteers were able to research and write the Spartacus Report, which blew the lid off the government’s DLA reforms. Demands to make them pay for the information they were asking for would have killed the Spartacus Report from the start.

Because of the FOI Act, Edinburgh Council was obliged to respond to the questions the Save Our Services campaign was asking. (Sometimes we win.)

Because of the FOI Act, Durham Police are being asked to explain why there’s been a steadily increasing use of tasers by the police on members of the public. No doubt they find this awkward. But they work for us, and Freedom of Information keeps that in mind.

The Ministry of Justice is complaining about vexatious “serial requesters”, and I would hope they are thinking about this kind of story – a FOI request discovered that large numbers of electronically-tagged prisoners are tampering with their tags or in breach of curfew, and what seem like very few prosecutions proportionate to the number of breaches. Now I would guess that the low prosecution rate means most breaches of curfew are minor or unintentional: most “tampering” accidental: the story is tabloid fearmongering.

Of 277 people given tags by Norwich Crown and Magistrates’ courts last year, 173 breached their curfews, including 38 who tampered with their tags.

However, Serco, the contractor responsible for the electronic monitoring, has been able to prosecute only a handful of cases.

The figures, obtained by the Evening News through the Freedom of Information Act, show the number of breaches from Norwich’s courts is increasing, with 46pc of people tagged in 2009 reported for a breach, 52pc in 2010 and 62pc last year. Norwich Evening News, 20th February 2012

Given the fearmongering stories tabloids like to write about crime waves, the MoJ and the police must be especially apt to get pestered with this kind of request.

But complaints that FOI is producing “revelations of public waste or corruption” and therefore FOI should go? That’s… backwards, to say the least.

The Association of Chief Police Offices complains

“fishing” by journalists “to trawl for stories” was “a major concern”.

It backed the introduction of a £10 fee for all requests and an education programme to give the public “more realistic expectations as to the types of information they are likely to receive”.

But this is rightly a matter for the Leveson inquiry – should newspapers fish for stories about crime waves that don’t actually exist? I’d say no – but banning or raising the fees threshold for FOI requests is the wrong way to go about it. We need better, more responsible newspapers in the UK. Trying to make it more difficult or more expensive to get information out of a public body is not going to accomplish that.

The Freedom of Information Act sets a standard for transparency and openness in democracy. The post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Committee, twelve years after the Act was passed, must not be used to make it more difficult for us to find out what we want to know about how public and statutory bodies are being run.

Write to your MP and tell them you support the right to know. The Justice Committee meets again tomorrow. The more support Freedom of Information has from all of us, the less likely they will be able to take it away. They say a very small proportion of the public requests information. That may be. But when you want to know what’s going on with the trams or the privatisation of services or closing down your local school – that’s when you don’t want to be met with a bland “You don’t need to know.”

Follow the campaign at SaveFOI2012.

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Filed under Healthcare, In The Media, Scottish Politics

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